I’ve always had a strange fascination with yard sales. I’m not sure why, but every time I’ve passed one, as a kid or even more recently as, well, pretty much a kid, only now with better fitting, first generation clothes, I get this suspicion that there’s something being sold just for me, some object that couldn’t find a place in these people’s lives but would have an important role in mine. I imagine them selling the ammo missing from my inherited Nerf bow, a computer with unlimited Chips Challenges and SkiFree levels installed on it, or maybe even a Sega Dreamcast controller that actually makes sense.
I think it was this supernatural belief in yard sales that made me so apprehensive about running one for my parents last weekend. When they came to me with the idea, it was more of a, “Well since you’re living at home this summer and since getting up at 7 to set everything up will keep you from being hungover all Saturday, you’re doing this” kind of suggestion. They’ve been working for months now getting the house ready for some long overdue renovations (our side door is literally held together by duct tape and a paper bag from SuperFresh) and the clearing of space has come with some tough decisions, at least for my dad.
See, my dad takes to inanimate objects like some people might take to a stray puppy they’ve taken in for the night, only with him the rule isn’t, “Don’t name it or you’ll get attached”, it’s, “Don’t even let it in the door or it’ll never leave”. Once my dad’s smuggled an object inside, it’s there to stay. Take his collection of driftwood for example, which he’s collected, probably illegally, from a handful of National Parks he’s visited in his life (he’s been to more parks than he has driftwood from, but that’s because he forgets pretty often that he collects driftwood as a hobby), even as it rots in our living room, right next to the fireplace, I am 100% sure that if the house were to burn down, it would all miraculously survive. My dad’s possessions are like horror movie villains, there’s no killing them, and this is why a yard sale was such a tough task for him to take on: it meant selling off something immortal.
Even as we began to set up tables for the sale, I could sense his eyes wandering around the objects I’d be selling, picking which ones he would try to save as the day went on. He even picked up an old gumball machine and asked, “Wait, we’re selling this,” as if it hid a piece of his soul amid the stale candy inside. I’d later tweet, only half jokingly, “This day is less me vs. customers than it is my dad vs. memories.”
Here’s the thing about yard sales, something I learned fairly quickly after settling into my lawn chair with a box of Oh’s cereal and a ludicrously sized cup of apple juice: everyone who intentionally stops by a yard sale within a half hour of its starting time is a dick. I don’t mean that they are terrible people, and I certainly don’t mean they’re literally fleshy, sentient phalluses that roamed my lawn trying to find a used copy of The Great Gatsby. Let me explain. My first four patrons were pros, looking for jewelry, “smoking materials”*, jewelry, and World War II memorabilia, respectively. How did I know they were pros? Well, for starters, it was a Saturday and they arrived in the time window of 8-8:15 am, and since the only publicity I had given this sale was an ad posted on Craigslist that morning, I was pretty sure they’d been constantly refreshing the Garage Sale section on the site until mine came up. The other reason I knew that they were pros was because one of them admitted it to me, saying she buys people’s old jewelry and turns a huge profit. Another gave me a panphlet so that we could “stay in contact in case I came across and World War II memorabilia lying around my house.” I told him that I heard a rumor about the house across the street being the place where FDR was conceived. He was not amused.
For those wondering at this point in the story what the Craigslist ad said, it read,
There is a Garage Sale going on at 2116 Belvedere Ave. We have all kinds of stuff that you can purchase at whatever price you offer. Full bedroom set featuring a canopy bed, an air hockey table that you can spill beer on and it’ll still function (probably), basketballs, soccer balls, footballs (no baseballs, sorry), a cookie monster cookie jar that will scare all your kids away from eating cookies ever again, Dicks Sporting Goods water bottles to give to your bro as a joke, an AM/FM radio that can probably be made into a time machine if you put the effort in, a lamp, some skis our neighbors gave us that have never been used but totally made us look really interesting for a while there, a stuffed polar bear, an enormous Christmas wineglass you can give to your alcoholic aunt (either as a joke or as a symbol of your appreciation for her struggle), speakers my dad keeps trying to take back in the house, and a green stapler. We also have other items for sale, so stop by and check out our stuff.
The ad seemed like an important part of this story as a whole, so I wanted to keep you in the loop. Back to the four patrons being dicks.
All of them were pleasant on the outside, these Craigslist vultures, and it wasn’t until after all of them had left that I realized why they’d made me so uncomfortable. It has something to do with how I feel about antiquing in general. A strange practice superficially, I find it even stranger the more I think about it. Why do we put so much stock into objects simply because they’ve been around forever? Why does something that faded into the decorative scenery of someone else’s home suddenly become worth money when it’s removed? Why do we care about it so much more out of context, in a show room, being dissected by a slow-talking, gray-bearded white guy through a magnifying glass? It all has to do with the exploitation of memories.
I should have prefaced all this by saying I have never antiqued, been to an antique show, or actually listened when anyone has talked to me about antiquing. What I’m saying is just an impression I got from the very idea behind this practice of yard sale antiquing, which seems inescapably linked to memory. When people look into purchasing old objects, such as chairs, mirrors, or even lightly used murder weapons, one of the keys to assessing whether or not they will end up investing in it is the context in which it first existed, its initial role. They ask how it was used, who used it, and when. Antique people (“antiquers” is apparently not a word acceptable within Microsoft Word’s high standards, which is cool because “antique people” is a lot more hilarious) need this information so that when they go to re-sell it, they can include the memories attached to the object as part of the sales pitch. These items are sold to people who want to feel connected to memories they don’t have, to events that they weren’t around for. The people buying this stuff from the antique people are also buying the ghosts that come with it. They need those too. We constantly move on and forget, so we buy physical memories, ones that someone else has tried to forget. It’s very strange.
We’re obsessed with history, humans are, which is a true statement even if you’ve never particularly cared for Ken Burns. Our cities are shaped by it. We build around historical landmarks so that we can feel their presence, let their memories permeate our experience, making a nearly tangible timeline. Our attachment to history gives us a wider scope, dwarfs our arrogance, and reminds us where we’ve come from and what we should be heading towards. It’s why Independence Hall was never swallowed by the advancing steel sea and people still line up to go to the top of the Empire State Building. There’s a connection we feel, almost subconsciously, to everything that’s come before us.
So, like villains in a Charlie Kaufman movie, yard sale antique people are exploiting a relationship to objects we don’t even realize we have. They buy up these memory-hoarding items to pawn them off on people who don’t fully understand why they want them. Antique people are selling us something we can get for free, or with a small donation, because they make us think we need them, make us want to be the only ones who can experience them. They pervert history and make it into something profitable, which is exactly why I called them dicks before. They profit on something that shouldn’t be profitable. They’re worse than beach-tag salesmen.
Now I’m not calling just anyone who shops at a yard sale a dick, because I met some genuinely great people while working on Saturday. It’s really just these antique people that got to me (though I did have a theory going for most of the day that the only other types of people who shop at yard sales are moms and pedophiles. When a thirty year old woman with no kids (I asked) bought our old wicker table, I had to forgive myself, and I think you will too, for not selling a set of my sister’s old beads to an elderly gentleman who came by earlier and told me he was looking for stuff “to give to some kids”. At that point, I still believed in the theory too much to aid a pedophile.)
As the crowds wore down, there was one more patron I had to deal with before I could close up and return to my dad his unsold memories. She looked over an obviously fake framed painting and asked if it was an original. “I painted it, actually,” I told her.
“Not the best,” she shrugged out. Even as I flipped her off when she wasn’t looking, I couldn’t actually be mad; I was just relieved to hear some honesty.
I also live tweeted this event. The highlights are below.
*On second thought, this guy could’ve just been looking to get high… or he was undercover trying to bust up my yard sale. So he was probably a dick too, but for a different reason.